Presented in a fluid modern translation by Paul Schmidt, Three Sisters, perhaps Chekhov’s least plot-heavy play, has rarely seemed as raw and emotional as it does on stage at Classic Stage Company, in a cast led by married film actors Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard.
A stalwart presenter of classical and classical-inspired works, Classic Stage has managed to assemble a starry cast that is at once humble and cohesive enough not to weigh the play down in attention-mongering or hysterics. Though there are moments of deeply-felt tears, it’s a pleasure to see such a clear-eyed production of an occasionally muddled, emotionally complicated play.
The titular sisters, each portrayed with sharp insight, are Olga (Jessica Hecht), Irina (Juliet Rylance), and Masha (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Longing to leave the provinces in favor of the nation’s capital, Moscow, each is a finely etched, uniquely troubled individual. Olga, the eldest, is an unmarried teacher who dreads becoming headmistress and watching her life pass her by. Masha, who is married to Kulygin, a local teacher, finds herself fixating on a visiting army commander, Vershinin (Peter Sarsgaard), despite her loyalties. And the youngest, Irina, struggles with the decision between marrying a respectable lieutenant, Tuzenbach (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), for position and security and holding out for love in Moscow.
Meanwhile, the sisters’ sole brother, Andrey (Josh Hamilton), seems to be squandering away more and more of the family’s money, compromising their assets without permission as a way of maintaining his status in society. He takes for his wife the eccentric, commanding Natasha (Marin Ireland in a standout performance), a cruel utilitarian woman who sees age-old trees as hindrances to the view and would prefer to release the aging servants without a moment’s guilt as she takes over as veritable commander of the family’s home.
Though Marco Piemontese’s fine costumes are of the period, Schmidt’s translation lends an easy-going immediacy to the piece that should be welcome to those less accustomed to Chekhov’s writing. Similarly, a spartan, well-used set by Walt Spangler keeps the action moving apace, particularly as the dining room table converts to a shared bedroom loft in the play’s third act.
Director Austin Pendleton has taken great care, in assembling his cast, to attend even to the supporting roles of the play. There are deeply felt moments from Roberta Maxwell as house servant Anfisa as well as from George Morfogen in the role of Ferapont and the always-fine Louis Zorich as Chebutykin, an aging army doctor who begins to doubt his healing abilities.
It’s the cohesion of the actors involved that causes the production to rise to the peaks that it does. Maggie Gyllenhaal, regal as ever, is even better here than she was in Uncle Vanya a few seasons back (also at Classic Stage, and also opposite husband Peter Sarsgaard). Though one can occasionally sense the self-awareness of an actress reveling in the rich language at hand, Gyllenhaal is a dreamy, relatable Masha, as gutsy and free-spirited with Vershinin as she is restrained by her marriage.
Jessica Hecht’s tight-lipped acting style is perfectly suited to the role of buttoned-up Olga. As the eldest, her protective suspicion is palpable. She’s matched by up-and-comer Juliet Rylance (daughter of Shakespearean great Mark Rylance), whose fiercely emotional Irina carries the piece in its second half. As her frustrations with her family’s ill-fated dreams of Moscow mount and Natasha’s controlling ways begin to consume her family’s life, her stability begins to crack and give way to crippling sorrow.
At the heart of the family’s grief, of course, is Andrey’s wife Natasha. A great production must have, at its heart, a great Natasha. The role, as a foil for the sisters’ comparable virtue, is a gift to a suitably skilled actress, and Marin Ireland rises to the task beautifully. Pulling an appropriate dose of humor from her lines in earlier scenes – beginning, as she does, as a dowdy young woman – Ireland’s Natasha soon delves into deeper, crueler territory and sets the stage ablaze in her wake. It’s perhaps Ireland’s finest performance yet in an already illustrious career, which has included a number of esteemed Broadway and off-Broadway credits, and one that merits special attention even within a production as uniformly well-inhabited as this one.